For people who suffer from chronic shortness of breath, the winter months are the most trying. Numerous research studies have shown that respiratory shortness of breath attacks, known as exacerbations, spike during the winter months, often leading to a higher number of emergency room visits and hospitalizations. This trend is most pronounced in northern geographic regions where the combination of colder temperatures and fewer hours of sunlight lead people to pursue an unhealthy mix of lifestyle behaviors.
The vicious cycle swirls like this:
1. Colder temperatures and fewer hours of sunlight lead to people spending more hours of each day indoors during the winter.
2. While indoors, people tend to be less physically active than when participating in outdoor activities. Lack of movement/activity weakens muscles and contributes to de-conditioning of cardiovascular function, especially in people who smoke or already have a respiratory condition.
3. Also, while indoors, people get less vitamin D from exposure to direct sunlight. Vitamin D deficiency is believed to be a leading cause of lung inflammation, along with other antioxidant deficiencies.
4. For those who smoke cigarettes, those exposed to second-hand smoke, and/or those who regularly use wood-burning heating sources, the toxic fumes from the smoke linger in the air longer indoors given that the confined space traps smoke versus dissipating more quickly in outdoor environments, meaning more of the dangerous chemicals are inhaled while indoors.
5. Further, bacteria and viruses most often thrive in warm, moist environments, and during winter months, the most attractive environments for them to survive are found indoors. Therefore, the more time spent indoors, the greater the exposure to bacteria and viruses that cause respiratory infections.
6. Episodes of depression are more pronounced during winter months due to prolonged confinement in indoor environments, lack of activity, and the persistent bleak, inhospitable outdoor environment. Depression can lead people to smoke more, eat more and drink more alcohol.
Now that we find ourselves in the dead of winter, what can you do to improve your chances of better breathing during the next few months?
1. Vitamin D
Increase your consumption of vitamin D through:
- Direct exposure to sunlight (20-30 minutes a day with multiple areas of your skin exposed and without applying sunscreen that blocks UVB rays)
- Foods fortified with vitamin D (cereals, breads and dairy products are good sources)
- Vitamin D dietary supplements
When it comes to dietary supplements, we recommend at least 2,000 IU for smokers and people with respiratory conditions, and look for it in the form of cholecalciferol. Vitamin D as a dietary supplement is inexpensive and widely available in retail stores and from online merchants.
While increasing your vitamin D consumption may sound too simple a solution for good respiratory health during the winter months, it is honestly one of the most valuable steps you can take. It helps protect your immune function and reduces airway inflammation — both valuable benefits for those with respiratory health concerns, especially during winter months.